Apply Aristotle's definition of tragedy to Oedipus Rex



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Apply Aristotle's definition of tragedy to Oedipus Rex. Perform a detailed analysis, showing how the play reflects each element of his definition. Identify any elements of his definition that do not seem to fit--at least, not comfortably.
How are Creon and Tiresias both foils of Oedipus--whose personalities have traits opposite to Oedipus, thereby exposing aspects of O's character?
Study Questions:


  1. Look for indications of Oedipus' selflessness and self-centeredness in his words, such as in lines 58-59 vs. 61-64. To what extent is Oedipus acting as a savior, for the benefit of his people, in this play, and to what extent is he acting on his own behalf? Consider his reasons for fleeing Corinth and Delphi, his accusations against Creon, his reasons for wanting to talk to the survivor of the attack on Laius and other actions he has taken in his life.

  2. Are the chorus right about the gods and Oedipus? Does the chorus (townspeople) get anything exactly right in the whole play? If they are not spokespersons for the playwright, what kind of portrayal of human beings are they?

  3. Check the last statements of the chorus and of Creon to see if they tell the theme of this tragedy. Is this a story of personal tragedy? Is it a religious story, justifying the gods?

What sources of conflict or jealousy might there have been between Creon and Oedipus before this day? How do you think Creon felt about Oedipus' getting the throne after Laius was reported dead (he would have been next in line for the throne after Laius, wouldn't he)? Oedipus apparently trusted him enough to send him to Delphi; does Oedipus accuse Creon of not reporting the gods' message accurately or just of trying to take advantage of it to get Oedipus ousted? How does Creon seem to feel about becoming king at the end of the play?

  1. Oedipus was born a prince, raised to be a king. What does this play tell us about the nature of leadership and the qualities of a great leader? Does Oedipus possess the sort of concern for the downtrodden that Princess Diana Windsor tried to instill in her sons, or is he the sort of king who is more concerned with outer image than the substance of his rule? Does Oedipus have a "messiah complex," or is he justifiably taking on the role of savior of Thebes?


Irony and coincidence also influence our view of Oedipus as a tragic protagonist. To what extent is Oedipus a fool of the gods, and to what extent is he free to choose his own way? In other words, do the gods simply know what Oedipus will do in a given situation because they know human nature, or do they actually manipulate events beyond likelihood and mere coincidence? Mention several incidents or decision points for Oedipus in your answer.
Which seems to bother the chorus (elders of Thebes) more--the killing of the king or the incest? To answer, review "stasimon 1"--the chorus' response to Oedipus and Tiresias making accusations against each other.
Is Jocasta actually willing to live in incest with her son as long as the information isn't public? Since it was Jocasta, according to the herdsman in the next scene, who actually gave the baby to him and commanded him to abandon it on the mountainside, does Jocasta kill herself because she can't face Oedipus or because she can't face the public shame of their incest?
Consider how you would film this play--or how Hollywood might. Given today's special effects, the hanging and the blinding could be staged directly and would not have to be simply reported by a horrified messenger. How much of Oedipus' life would you tell? Would you flashback to the birth, the exchange at Mount Cithaeron, any of his life at Corinth, his visit to Delphi, the fight where three roads meet, his confrontation with the Sphinx, accepting the throne of Thebes, his life with Jocasta, the plague, the investigation?

These sources of conflict rage through the play:

  • the incest taboo

  • king-killing

  • father-killing

  • fighting the gods

  • inevitability

  • questing for self-knowledge

  • irony

  • divine knowledge of events vs. free choices by humans

  • anger

  • suicide

  • coincidence



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